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Accountabilities of crowds

Cross-posted to HASTAC blog. I’m posting a lot lately. It must be finals week.

Google Image Result for http://sselblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/wisdom-of.jpg I’ve been worrying about the wisdom of the wisdom of crowds lately, as evidenced by my Mechanical Turk post. “Wisdom of crowds” is a Silicon Valley religion, like libertarianism and market liberalism. (I’m going off of participant-observation from 10 years of being a valley citizen myself*, but Fred Turner documents these threads carefully.) I find “wisdom of crowds” to have a dark side to “wisdom” that comes from slivers of contributions made by people who don’t know what they’re contributing to and likely don’t have a chance to profit from their participation. Amazon Mechanical Turk, where many people make about a dollar an hour making extra cash to make ends meet, is an example of this dark side. What are ethical conditions under which crowds should labor? (I asked 67 Mechanical Turk workers this very question myself: 67 Turkers Bills of Rights.)

Not only do conditions of work become difficult to account for when the workers are millions of microtime workers. Emergent genderings, racializations, and other modes of differential injustice also are hard to track down. Wikipedia’s story of open participation and user agency becomes a cover story for not worrying about how power and authority gets distributed. For example, I strongly suspect there’s a bias against women in who is considered notable enough to have a biography. I’ve known several women who have had the appropriateness of having wikipedia biographies challenged (danah boyd, for example) while less notable men go unchallenged. Like with the liberal politics of individual choice markets, lots of people get a vote but the powerful often set the agenda and win. And like neoliberal racial politics, when everything is about individual choices and agency — when practically anyone can edit an article — we don’t have to talk about race and gender, right?

Both Wikipedia and wisdom of crowds logic generally have a commitment to emergence and a commitment to getting the right answer — the neutral, objective truth. And in their attention to outcome and mass, the people get blurred.

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*I heard one Silicon Valley CEO rationalize cooperating with Chinese censorship laws by explaining that doing business with China bolsters its middle class, which leads to democracy. I’m not saying “omg how could you do business with that regime” — no government is perfect, so it is about what kinds of business. But markets and democracy are well-yoked in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial do-gooding.